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Wednesday, 31 January 2007 00:00

History 2 - Food 1

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The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days that Changed the Nation by Howard Means. Harcourt, 2006. 304 pages

Americans are often of two minds in regard to history. Henry Ford once famously proclaimed that “History is bunk,” a sentiment with which many of his fellow citizens apparently agree.

From the neoconservatives who advocated the war in Iraq to those who baa about love and peace, from Richard Nixon with his wage and price controls to the socialists on the left with their free-lunch agenda, many Americans often seem blind to the facts and lessons we may take from history.

A professor in my graduate school once told me that we should draw no lessons whatsoever from history. I understood his concerns — history, like the Bible or the Koran in the hands of fanatics, could certainly become the “truth” that led to 1,000 errors — yet I remember thinking how ridiculous he sounded. If we could draw no lessons from history, what indeed was the point of studying it other than “history for history’s sake?” An old man — I am one of these — can surely draw lessons from his own lifetime. Why then cannot we draw lessons from history?

In The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days that Changed the Nation (ISBN 0-15-101212-1, $25), Howard Means gives us a brief biography of the 17th president of the United States but spends most of his time on the impact that Johnson had on our country during a crucial few months. We see here how Johnson, who was born in North Carolina and entered the political arena in Tennessee, regarded the Civil War as more of a class conflict than a war over race and slavery. His ears and mind were with the working classes — he hated the planter class of the South, regarding it as the instigator of war and ruin — and so found in the end of the war the beginning of a brighter future for the laboring classes of the South.

Although one reviewer has written of this book that it is “a timely reminder of how disastrous it can be to have a president whose main quality is stubbornness” — meaning George Bush II, I suppose — that scarcely seems the aim of Mr. Means. He writes instead in conclusion of his fine book that Johnson must “bear part, perhaps even the brunt,” for the failures of Reconstruction in the South. Such a conclusion seems to be off-base. Having studied The Avenger Takes His Place, I still see Johnson less as a failed Lincoln than as a victim of Radical Republicans. It is true, as Means concludes, that Lincoln’s successors were so mediocre that, with the exception of Grant, very few Americans can name any of the presidents who served from 1865 to 1900. To blame such ignominy on Johnson, however, is surely to ignore the shadow cast by Lincoln. This era of political mediocrity and scandal was also a time renowned for American capitalism and private-sector growth, a time when America did not force itself politically or militarily on the world, an age when the American presidency had not yet taken on the trappings of empire.

The Avenger Takes His Place will satisfy not only the Civil War buff who seeks to learn more about the post-War era, particularly in Washington, but also offers many treasures to citizens who simply want to learn more about their political history.

Another valuable book for amateur historians is William S. Powell’s Encyclopedia of North Carolina (ISBN 0-8078-3071-2). This compendium, which consists of 1,314 pages and more than 2,000 entries, will be a fine addition to any library, public or personal. This Encyclopedia lists entries ranging from barbeque to Hanes Brands, from the Research Triangle Park to the Slaves’ Midsummer Holiday and the Battle of Whitehall. There are articles on Islam, penmanship, various battles fought in our state, and a host of other topics.

This book may draw criticism for its lack of biographical entries (though that would surely involve another volume). A cursory glance at that index on my part revealed the absence of references to Francis Gray Paton and to Betty Smith, two prominent writers associated with North Carolina. The book also contains a relatively long article on the “Death to the Klan” March, the incident in 1979 in Greensboro when the Communist Party challenged the Ku Klux Klan to attend a Communist gathering on Nov. 3. When the Klan accepted the challenge and then killed five Communists, the Party responded by taking Klan members to court twice and then suing them. Despite the unintended irony of the article — the Communists using a hated legal system to pursue “murderers” after they themselves had thrown down the glove — the article is much too long and would have fit better under either the entry for Communists or for Ku Klux Klan.

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Readers looking for food books would do well to keep in mind Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand (0-8021-3937-X, $13). Harrison, a poet and novelist, is, as any reader of his fiction knows, a connoisseur of fine food and drink.

In these essays, published mostly in the 1990s, Harrison writes brilliantly not only of food, but also of life, literature, friends, family, and place. Though many of us associate Harrison with the American West and with Key West, he covers other places as well in these articles: Los Angeles, New York, Mexico and France.

What makes Harrison a formidable writer is the surprise he gives us in nearly every sentence. He is off-beat enough, funny enough, bold enough to keep our interest. Here, for example is a paragraph from the essay titled “Eat or Die:”

“Small portions are for smallish and inactive people. When it was all the rage, I was soundly criticized for saying that cuisine minceur was the moral equivalent of the foxtrot. Life is too short from me to approach a meal with the mincing steps of a Japanese prostitute ....”

For a mouth-watering and humorous look at meals and cookery, go to this wonderful book.

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